Upheaval in Late-Night, Part 1: The Workhorse Rides Off Into the Sunset


I grew up with Jay Leno.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve been an avid fan of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve watched it regularly, periodically or even intermittently. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that I find Jay Leno funny.

That’s beside the point. Every weekday that I’ve been alive (barring holidays, the occasional vacation and the 9-month Conan-induced hiatus), Jay Leno has appeared on TV at 11:35 every night to tell jokes about the events of the day. Have those jokes been funny? Has he gotten better with age? Has he innovated within the late-night playground he inherited in 1992 from the legendary Johnny Carson? No. He’s simply written some jokes, delivered them, sat down with some celebrities, introduced the musical guest, said goodnight and disappeared until the next night, when he did it all over again.

There’s something comforting about this reliability. The function of late-night television has changed markedly in the last twenty years. Devoted viewers have aged out of the target demographic. Younger viewers consume late-night TV as morning-after TV – what were the funniest bits? What was the viral moment? Which musical guest brought down the house? Jay Leno’s style doesn’t suit this piecemeal approach. As a result, even before the Conan brouhaha permanently tarnished his reputation, Leno has become a punching bag for people who don’t see the value in the kind of pleasant mediocrity that was Leno’s bread-and-butter. Because he (consciously, it seems) steered away from being provocative, daring, evolutionary or fresh, he lost the support of people who are perpetually searching for the next big thing in comedy.

Jay Leno was the next big thing once. Then he became the big thing, and people stopped caring. His presence was intrinsic to the television landscape, but not remotely vital. He worked tirelessly to put people to sleep. He might have been boring, but he didn’t get there without trying.

When he said goodbye to The Tonight Show for the first time, the tone was more triumphant than tearful.

Just weeks after his exit, Leno returned to nightly broadcasts of mediocre comedy and tepid celebrity guest appearances on The Jay Leno Show in primetime. NBC’s cynical attempt to lower production costs and generate reliable ratings performance grew stale almost immediately, as viewers had no use for Jay Leno’s flatlining when the rest of the TV landscape was filled with more far more stimulating options. Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien was off to a rocky start at The Tonight Show. Though NBC had promised him the gig five years earlier, the network quickly noticed that O’Brien’s idiosyncratic temperament wasn’t especially appealing for an audience looking for the television equivalent of getting their blankets tucked in. In a series of contract disputes and acts of media oneupsmanship too labyrinthine to bear repeating, Conan accepted a buyout and Leno returned to his old stomping grounds. Order had been restored. It was a classic high-school-style tragedy: the popular guy wins, and the weirdo retreats to a corner.

Leno’s reputation suffered mightily after this epic debacle. But his ratings? They did fine, if never returning to their pre-experiment heights. Meanwhile, Leno put his head down and did what he always did: he worked. He told jokes.

60 Mins

Fast-forward four years. NBC decides it’s willing to sacrifice Leno’s steady ratings for the possibility of raising numbers in the key demographic of 18-49 year-olds. Another succession plan is announced. Late Night host Jimmy Fallon will assume Leno’s chair at 11:35, SNL mainstay Seth Meyers will take over
for Fallon at 12:35. The tables had turned. It was Leno’s turn to get screwed.

He didn’t go down without a fight. He spent the weeks leading up to the announcement of the succession plan blasting NBC in none-too-subtle fashion during his nightly monologues. The network’s strained attempt to suggest that Leno and Fallon saw eye to eye on the plan (a cheesy taped bit in which the two hosts sang “Tonight” from West Side Story did little to persuade people that Leno was excited about his forced retirement.

And now here we are. A world without Jay Leno at 11:35.

For the first fifty minutes of his farewell show last Thursday night – his second au revoir after bidding what turned out to be a temporary adieu in 2009 – Leno’s impending absence from the television landscape seemed like it would be a relief. The final monologue smacked of desperation, his banter with Billy Crystal felt twenty to thirty years removed from present-day reality, and Crystal’s surprise musical number meant well but fell short of transcendent. (Oprah Winfrey and Carol Burnett? Fine. Chris Paul and Kim Kardashian? Scraping the bottom of the barrel.) Even Garth Brooks, once the most electrifying voice in country music, seemed to be shaking off the cobwebs – maybe even embracing them.

But then the guests waved goodbye, Leno sat down at his desk, and the significance of the moment fell into place. Leno looked visibly shaken as he chronicled the death of his family members during the first years of his Tonight Show tenure. He seemed to genuinely believe that his time had come, but he couldn’t quite come to grips with the looming specter of unemployment. And I felt bad for the guy. I know he screwed Conan over. I know his time had come. But there’s something to be said for putting your head down and doing the work every night. No one could ever argue that Leno didn’t do just that. He found his lane and he stayed in it. Now he’s left that lane, and perhaps his television career (doubtful, given his reputation as a workaholic). And for all of his faults, he will be missed. After all, it’s always nice to have someone put you to sleep.

Tomorrow: One door closes and the next one opens for Jimmy Fallon.

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